x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Brown recalls old enemy in bid for unity

Left-wingers are aghast that the prime minister has brought back Peter Mandelson, his long-time political foe, as secretary of state for business.

Peter Mandelson arrives at the department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform in London.
Peter Mandelson arrives at the department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform in London.

London // Members of the ruling Labour Party in Britain were yesterday struggling to digest the shock appointment of one of the country's most controversial politicians to Gordon Brown's cabinet. Left-wingers were simply aghast that the prime minister had brought back Peter Mandelson, the EU trade commissioner and a long-time political foe of Mr Brown, as secretary of state for business in a reshuffle of government jobs. The appointment stunned almost everyone, including Mr Mandelson, who has resigned from cabinet posts twice before after becoming immersed in controversy. Nick Robinson, the political editor of the BBC and one of Britain's most informed Westminster pundits, summed up the reaction when he admitted to being "gobsmacked" when he heard of the appointment. "Gordon Brown, for so long said to lack courage and to be unwilling to reach out to his enemies in the Labour Party, has now confounded his Blairite critics by putting Mandy back into the cabinet," he said. "What's behind Gordon Brown's moves? The economic challenge, the strategic challenge, and the threat to his position. Crucially, Brown is trying to shore up his position in the Labour Party. The message to the plotters is, in effect, 'If Mandelson is on my side, isn't it time you were?' " The move, however, has not been well received by either the trade unions or the left wing of the Labour Party, which, after Mr Brown's speech to the party conference last week, was expecting the party to swing to the Left after years of being dominated by a Blairite, centrist agenda. John McDonnell, a prominent left-wing Labour MP, was not merely gobsmacked but "absolutely gobsmacked". He said: "This is an extraordinary step backwards into the worst elements of the Blair era, to reinstate possibly the most divisive figure in Labour's recent history." Mr Mandelson himself said he was surprised but proud to be back in the cabinet. "Third time lucky," he joked to reporters in Downing St. The long-running feud between Mr Brown and Mr Mandelson - who, along with Tony Blair, were the main architects of New Labour - dates to May 1994, when Mr Mandelson decided to back Mr Blair, rather than Mr Brown, to be the new Labour leader. Mr Brown regarded this as political treason by his former ally and he could not forgive Mr Mandelson for, in effect, handing to Mr Blair the job that Mr Brown believed should have been his. The feud between Mr Brown and Mr Mandelson became so bitter that, for a while, they could not bring themselves to speak to each other. Mr Mandelson resigned from the government in 1998 after it was disclosed that he had borrowed £373,000 (Dh2.4 million) for the mortgage on a home in London in an unsecured loan from Geoffrey Robinson, who was paymaster general at the time. He was brought back into the government by Mr Blair in 1999 as Northern Ireland secretary but resigned again in 2001 after being accused of helping an Indian billionaire obtain a passport. He was later cleared of any wrongdoing. Sent to Brussels by Mr Blair to be an EU commissioner, Mr Mandelson's daggers-drawn relationship with Mr Brown continued until a sudden thaw this year. The prime minister visited Brussels in May and began a series of conversations on, initially, international trade matters and, more recently, on how to revive Labour's flagging popularity. Mr Mandelson is even understood to have contributed to Mr Brown's successful speech at the Labour Party conference last week. Mr Brown said he was bringing Mr Mandelson back into government because he needed "serious people for serious times" and because his new business secretary had unrivalled experience in global trade matters. He said: "Whatever the ups and downs have been in the past, everybody has got to come together and make sure that, as a nation, we come through this successfully." Mr Mandelson struck a similar note when he said: "Of course, we've had our ups and downs but we have also known each other for over 20 years and, originally, we worked very well together." Although the unexpected appointment of Mr Mandelson dominated the headlines yesterday, the prime minister's reshuffle included other senior changes plus the announcement of the creation of a National Economic Council to co-ordinate economic policies across government departments in these turbulent times. In other moves, Des Browne lost his job as defence secretary to John Hutton while, in a move seen as a bid to clamp down on the increasingly rebellious noises from the Labour backbench MPs, Nick Brown - one of the prime minister's closest allies - was made chief whip in the House of Commons. Baroness Ashton, leader of the House of Lords, will replace Mr Mandelson as EU trade commissioner in Brussels. Other appointments were Margaret Beckett, housing; Geoff Hoon, transport; Ed Miliband, climate/energy; Jim Murphy, Scotland; Liam Byrne, cabinet office; Caroline Flint, Europe minister. dsapsted@thenational.ae